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The transformation taking place in manufacturing is undeniable. From the biggest global manufacturers to the smallest specialty parts-makers, the way products are designed and built is morphing as digitization continues to bring a dizzying array of new technologies to factory floors.
As companies integrate tools ranging from robots, internet-connected sensors and wearable tech to mobile devices and real-time data analytics into their work environments, the roles human workers play are also evolving.
Looking at this through the eyes of two very different companies -- $20 billion-a-year engine and power system-maker Cummins Inc. and Noble Plastics, a family-owned maker of custom molded parts -- one thing becomes clear: Regardless of their size and scale, forward-thinking manufacturers have to hire new workers and train existing employees much differently than they did previously.
Cummins makes headway as a factory of the future
In the case of Cummins, changing automotive market dynamics is proving to be one of the biggest drivers of the company's push toward becoming a factory of the future.
Cummins: Fast facts
- Founded in 1919
- Based in Columbus, Ind.
- Five major business units
- 58,600 employees -- more than 33,000 of whom work in the supply chain
- 90+ manufacturing plants globally
- 1.4 million engines produced in 2018
The combination of the shift to electric power systems and ever-toughening emission standards, as well as the growing demand for smarter products, has left the 100-year-old company with little choice but to embrace technological innovation. In fact, the company has gone so far as to create an internal digital accelerator business focused on digitizing and bringing emerging tech into its operations and products.
This digitization effort has led to Cummins adopting a raft of new technologies, from mobile devices and industrial internet of things applications to new safety equipment and cobots -- robots that work together in close proximity with humans. But it's more than that; the move to producing electric power systems has led to changing technical requirements, such as the need for different algorithms to control automated manufacturing processes.
Naturally, so much change means workers have to learn new skills, and workforce training has become a huge priority. Cummins has developed its own training system and materials and it expects augmented and virtual reality to be a big part of its future, especially as it invests more in additive manufacturing, said Tim Millwood, VP of global manufacturing at the company.
"We've committed to our workforce to train them to be able to work on these new technologies," Millwood said. "We see that as a long-term transition."
Millwood is certain that Cummins can't possibly obtain all the technology skill sets it needs by retraining employees. A growing number of positions require enough technological know-how to necessitate hiring young, tech-savvy employees.
However, it turns out young professionals and recent college graduates aren't hot to trot to work in manufacturing. Despite efforts to continuously improve all of its plants and to bring in the technologies young workers expect, Cummins still has to take significant steps to elevate the perception of manufacturing among millennial and Generation Z workers.
"We're finding it's harder to attract these employees to work in manufacturing," Millwood said.
This has led to long-term seeding efforts, such as working with agencies around the world to help ensure a future base of potential employees for the industry. For example, Cummins is working with a local consortium called Conexus Indiana to include emerging factory technologies as part of curriculums in high schools, trade schools and colleges.
This change in curricula is also expected to help the industry overcome the fear that human jobs will be eliminated over time by robots, a concern that's certainly keeping a portion of potential employees from considering careers in manufacturing. And, along those lines, Millwood wants to reassure current and future employees that human workers aren't going anywhere.
"We're always going to need people," Millwood said. "We're not a commodity producer that can have lights out facilities that run remotely."
That's why Cummins is focused on cobots over robots. The goal, Millwood said, is to ensure that people can work more efficiently and effectively aided by robots that can handle tasks that humans have traditionally struggled with, thereby eliminating mistakes.
What's more, Cummins has made worker safety a big focus of its effort toward becoming a factory of the future. It has deployed software that constantly analyzes all its work stations in an effort to correct ergonomic issues that can result in repetitive injuries and, thus, lost productivity. Such problems are increasingly being solved by adding cobots or by experimenting with wearable exoskeleton technology that enables workers to perform repetitive physical tasks with much less wear and tear on their bodies.
One challenge that is holding back Cummins' modernization efforts is the scale of its operation. The company invests between $600 million and $800 million in factory capital each year, which is not enough to support wholesale digitization. That means constantly having to make tough decisions about what's next.
"We have to be smart in how we design and procure our new systems to make sure we're embracing and thinking into the future," Millwood said.
Noble Plastics takes necessary steps toward becoming a factory of the future
Noble Plastics is trying to tackle many of the same challenges as Cummins, only with a much smaller pool of resources. Where Cummins is able to develop its own training materials and environments, Noble has to take a more bare-bones approach.
Noble Plastics: Fast facts
- Founded in 2000
- Based in Grand Coteau, La.
- 45 employees
- One manufacturing facility
- 15 manufacturing cells
- 16 robots
For example, as the company increasingly leverages data analytics to spur process improvements, it needs employees with at least a basic knowledge of Six Sigma concepts. To address this as best as it can in-house, Noble holds a five to 10 minute meeting on continuous improvement every morning, during which employees can share any new ways they've found to use tools to solve problems. The company also offers occasional mini-classes and one-on-one trainings, but it has no internal machinery to make this programmatic.
Scott Rogers, who co-founded Noble with his wife, Missy, who serves as president, said Noble has used some virtual training tools to integrate new employees, but that training is an area in which the company needs to improve. Training is currently the responsibility of department managers, and while Rogers recognizes that's not sustainable if the company wants to remain competitive, the alternative represents a luxury -- albeit an increasingly necessary one.
"It's more of a challenge for small and midsize companies," he said. "We have to pull the trigger on someone who works on training continuously."
Rogers described a simple task that serves as an ideal example of how this challenge impacts Noble. A process engineer who controls two knobs on a machine -- one that sets pressure and another that sets temperature -- sets them within acceptable parameters and the machine starts doing its job. But let's say the pressure knob is set to 100 pounds per square inch (PSI) and that results in acceptable parts, but one part would come out better if the pressure was 101 PSI, and another part would be optimized at 98 PSI. This represents an area of potential improvement that's not possible without the needed technical skills.
"If I feed the information on my temperature and pressure into a machine learning algorithm along with part weight, it learns what changes are affecting the part," Rogers said. "At some point, the algorithm will start suggesting optimal settings."
As a result, Rogers is learning how to write and test machine learning algorithms, a skill that he'd be hard-pressed to teach his existing employees. This highlights another challenge Noble has in common with Cummins: attracting young, tech-savvy employees.
The company has had some success thanks to a seed it planted years ago when it partnered with local universities for an engineering competition that has, over time, fueled its recruitment pipeline with more qualified applicants. Noble has also made other, more transparent efforts to attract young talent, such as creating an appealing dining area, a state-of-the-art design room and other on-the-job perks.
This is all part of a new frontier in which the infusion of emerging technology is forcing manufacturers to reach out to different kinds of potential workers, and vice versa.
"Not only are manufacturers hiring people they never thought they'd have to," Rogers said, "but those people themselves probably never envisioned themselves working with a manufacturer either."
The quicker they get used to the idea of working together, the more seamless manufacturers' transitions to the factory of the future will be, and, just maybe, factory work can retain its status as a staple of the American economy.